In his new book, ‘A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers’ Will Friedwald says ” He (Hank Williams) is one of the most expressive of all vocalists in any genre of music.” In the opening paragraphs of his 4 page essay on Williams, Friedwald sets the stage of Hank Williams greatness, making the point that I have tried to highlight often in this blog over the past two years, that Hank Williams stature as an artist does not depend only on his songwriting, but also on his singing:
We would be celebrating Hank Williams even if he had never written a single word or a single note of a song for the same reason we celebrate Sinatra or Bennett. Williams was a brilliant interpreter no matter who the original author was, on a level of the great singers of the show music oriented American songbook.
Like Sinatra, Williams knew everything that there was and is to know about bringing out the inner meaning of a song: using the right inflections to get every thing that can be gotten out of a lyric using dynamics and emphasis and a colorful range of inflections.
He states what Hank Williams’ fans have known since the first time they heard his voice: “Williams is a master of extracting the meaning behind the words”.
Friedwald refers directly to 4 of Hank Williams’ performances in his more detailed discussion, and not too many fans would likely guess what they are. However he has picked two songs that I have highlighted with specific analysis in this blog, ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ and ‘Cool Water’ both highlights of the Mother’s Best programs. The other two are ‘You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)’ and ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle’.
In talking about ‘You’re Gonna Leave’ he zeroes right in on just one word. This is a word Hank fans will remember well, and will want to go back to and listen to again. That word is “peeved”. Here’s what he has to say about what happens when Hank hits that word:
Williams hits a wild blue note right on that word, he actually stretches it into two notes. It’s so extreme it’s hard to make out what he’s saying- but he sure does get the message across. There’s no doubt what he means or the feeling behind it.
And then there is this comment on ‘Lonesome Whistle’:
When Hank Williams sings about trains and prison, you can’t possible think about anything but trains and prisons. The whistle isn’t just lonesome it’s violent and ugly; he’s making you confront whatever feelings you have about trains and prisons. He’s one of the most expressive of all vocalists in any genre of music.
On Hank’s cover of Bob Nolans ‘Cool Water’ Friedwald takes the same interpretation I did in my earlier piece on the song in this blog. Hank Williams makes ‘Cool Water’ about much more important things than a western story about a man and his mule:
When Hank Williams sings ‘Cool Water’ its immediatley about something darker and more profound than a thirsty cowboy. . . ‘Cool Water’ becomes an epic saga of redemption and retribution, of life and death, of heaven and hell, of Mother and Jesus, even of prisons and trains.
Finally, there is quite a long discussion of how Hank Williams stripped away The Weavers/Mitch Miller influences on the folk classic ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’, which was a hit record in 1951. It made its first appearance by Hank Williams on the Mother’s Best recordings. Friedwald uses it as an example of Hank’s love of simplicity which he sees as a major influerce on later generations. Concerning ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ he says:
Williams keeps it plaintively simple and absolutely breaks your heart with it.
Readers of this blog may recall that I wrote a lengthy essay on Hank Williams as a founder of rock and roll. Friedwald agrees and makes a very interesting point. He thinks it was Hank’s refusal to modernize or jazz up his music and to keep it simple that provided the coming founders of rock with their template.
Williams innovations anticipated those of the better early rock and rollers (like Fats Domino) who a few years after his death made their breakthroughs by paring down extraneous matter and and bringing out the basic truths of the blues.Williams insisted on returning country music to its purest fundamentals. By getting down to brass tacks he raised the bar for virtually all country music that came after him.
Friedwald also understands how important the blues were to Hank Williams although he doesn’t mention Tee Tot specifically. But he sees that Hank’s Alabama roots and time spent in Mississippi and Louisiana had a tremendous influence:
His mature music was equal parts Leadbelly and Gene Autry. The blues were not only a fundamental part of what he sang, they represented who he was.
Will Friedland ends his essay Hank in ‘A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers’ with this paragraph
What Bing Crosby once said about Louis Armstrong applies equally to Hank Williams. “When he sings a happy song you feel happy, when he sings a sad song you want to cry. And when you think of it what else is there to pop singing.”